The fact that the winner of the presidential elections in Georgia is Salome Zurabishvili is positive in itself. Only a handful of women have reached the highest position instate executives in post-Soviet republics, often in temporary, acting positions, such as the Georgian Nino Burjanadze (2007-2008), or Roza Otunbayeva who served as the president of Kyrgyzstan following the second revolution (2010-11), or a number of women-presidents in Baltic states often having ceremonial positions, except for Laimdota Straujuma, prime minister of Latvia (2014-16). In a time where women remain largely excluded from political leadership, public representation, suffer from inequality wage inequality, not to mention the systematic sexual violence revealed by recent scandals, having a woman-president is evidently positive.
The fact that Salome Zurabishvili belongs to the Georgian diaspora is another positive factor. In a post-Soviet country where all foreign born could be suspected of being spies, where minorities are treated as second class, where concepts such as “the nation” or “the citizen” have a very narrow definition, to have a foreign born president who speaks Georgian with heavy accent is again positive.
The fact that Salome Zurabishvili belongs to the Georgian diaspora is another positive factor. In a post-Soviet country where all foreign born could be suspected of being spies, where minorities are treated as second class, where concepts such as “the nation” or “the citizen” have a very narrow definition, to have a foreign born president who speaks Georgian with heavy accent is again positive. A second reason to salute Georgia’s electoral choice is that Salome Zurabishvili was born to a Georgian immigrant family in Paris in 1952. She belongs to Georgia’s Diaspora, where she made an impressive career in French diplomacy, serving among others as the French ambassador to Georgia, before taking an interest in Georgian politics.
It was only in the second round of the presidential elections, on November 28 Zurabishvili won by a clear 60% of the votes. Her rival Grigol Vashadze of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) got only 40% of the votes. Both candidates come from a long diplomatic career, and both had served as Foreign Minister of Georgia. The problem is that both candidates are not genuine political characters, but the avatars of ghosts manipulating Georgian politics from a distance. The two ghosts of Georgian politics are the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and the former revolutionary leader Mikhail Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili is the éminence grise of Georgian politics. He made fortune in Russia in the 1990’s importing consumer goods, privatizing state property, and setting up private banks, before returning his native country to engage in politics. In 2012 Ivanishvili successfully challenged Mikhail Saakashvili, the bigger-than-life leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution, who was increasingly behaving like a revolutionary-autocrat. After successfully sacking Saakashvili from power, Ivanishvili refrained from becoming the new president of Georgia, or assuming any public office. Instead, he posted people loyal to him to positions of power, manipulating them from distance. He enjoys unlimited power but assumed no responsibility.
Behind the “independent” candidate Salome Zurabishvili we find the long shadow of Ivanishvili. The first round of the presidential elections were a close draw, when both Zurabishvili and the opposition candidate got around a third of the votes each. It was then that the billionaire-Ivanishvili came out from the dark promising to cover the debts of 600’000 Georgian citizens, a massive amounting estimated at $560 million, ensuring the necessary votes to mark victory in the second round. For many, this is no different than vote buying.
Another ghost is hiding behind the candidate of the opposition, the phantom of Mikhail Saakashvili. The enfant terrible of Georgian politics, he led a none-violent revolution in Georgia in 2003 promising to fight corruption and to establish Western-style democracy. Then in January 2004 Saakashvili won a strong mandate by winning 96% of the votes in presidential elections. Soon, neo-liberal top-down reforms created much misery among the population, triggering the 2007 demonstrations to express popular dissatisfaction. The new rulers did not hesitate to use repression. After controversial elections in 2008, Saakashvili went further to launch a military adventure against secessionist South-Ossetia overrunning Russian peacekeeping forces there, and triggering a Russian military counter-attack. From his exile Saakashvili called demonstrations to “fight peacefully” until they “remove the oligarchy from power.” Isn’t he the eternal revolutionary, the Don Quixote of the Caucasus, overthrowing aging autocrats but unable to build new institutions?
The larger question is what did Georgia achieve now 15 years of the Rose Revolution? Neither of the central promises of 2003 – end to corruption and democracy – are achieved. Georgia’s experience, the successes of its revolutions but mainly its failures, are very important lessons to a host of countries going through revolutionary changes, such as Tunisia and especially neighbouring Armenia. The most pressing lesson of Georgia is that it needs new leaders, real leaders, instead of being manipulated by two ghosts from the past.